Opinion: Gove’s history – Whiggish, patriotic and wrong, part 1

Britain’s history curriculum is about to return to the past. Michael Gove’s plan to change the way this important subject is taught in our schools “smells of Whiggery; of history as chauvinism”, according to Professor Tom Devine. In the first of a series of two articles, I will look at the Whiggish side to Gove’s vision of history.

The Liberal Democrats are the political grandchildren of the Whigs, but we don’t need to share their interpretation of history. At the heart of Whig history is a sort of teleological view of the past, imagining that the ‘story’ of Britain is about the inevitable progress towards the way things are today. Whig historians were always especially interested by individuals, seeing history in terms of ‘great men’, and often committing the crime which every historian should be wary of; anachronism.

Whiggery, in my opinion, has very little to do with liberalism. In fact, as a liberal, I see Whiggery as dangerous. If we believe, for example, that history demonstrates the constant progress of humanity, won’t we become complacent? Liberals must be aware that liberty isn’t something that is achieved piece by piece. It is something which increases and decreases, each liberty must be fought for constantly. There is nothing liberal about complacency.

Michael Gove’s view of history seems to be tainted by both Whiggery and patriotism. Gove’s desire to restore historical figures to the curriculum seems to sound a little like Whiggery’s focus on great men. Gove has expressed concern that,

We have a compulsory history curriculum in secondary schools that doesn’t mention any historical figures – except William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano.

The problem is, of course, that historical figures aren’t always necessary in the study of history.  The social history which arose in the 1970s finally wore down the older tradition of history which resembled a series of biographies, because any history which puts eminent individuals at the centre is normally the history of the powerful.

Power has always been the focus of historians; the religious orders of Medieval England, for example, recorded the exploits of monarchs much more frequently than the lives of the people they reigned over. Gove’s desire to restore historical figures to the curriculum risks transforming it into the story of powerful men, not the story of societies.

Even if an excessive focus on individuals did not risk shrinking the scope of history, there is still a great deal of debate about how important any of the individuals remembered as great by history actually were. To take an example from outside Britain, debate is still strong between different interpretations of Hitler. Some see him as a powerful dictator who established a totalitarian state around himself and led it as an absolute, single, all-powerful leader. Others seem him as less important than this, and shift more focus to the local Nazi officials who interpreted Berlin’s commands, often with wildly different consequences.

The study British history can not be reduced to the study of a few men. If Gove wants to return individuals to history, he needs to avoid exaggerating their importance. If he really envisions history being about “our island story”, he should be doing the very opposite, focussing to a greater extent on social and cultural history.

Part two will appear on this site tomorrow.

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12 Comments

  • *applause*

    I find it truly mindboggling that some people can go through a historical education themselves and *still* think it’s ok to use the teaching of history to further their own moral propaganda. It never seems to occur to Gove what company he’s in with that approach.

  • A great piece George although I think a historical curriculam that includes no examination of well document powerful figures would also leave young people the poorer.

    I would have thought that Mr Gove’s cabinet colleague the 1st Secretary of State and Secretary of State for the Foreign & Commonwealth Department would want to make sure that British school pupils continued to lean about Wilberforce has it will help his book sales. If they add Pitt the younger even better. They are both excellent biographies mind.

    Offering more than just an endless diet of Nazi Germany would be an improvement from when I did GCSE and A-level history but not if it is just for a return to some 19th century story of Britain psuedo narrative.

  • Malcolm Baines 6th Oct '11 - 11:40am

    History has always been used to justify and explain contemporary constitutional and social change whether it is parliamentary democracy under the whig interpretaion of history or the class struggle leading to the communist society under the marxist view of history. One of the important points for pupils to grasp is that people in the past lived lives with different social, religious and political values from ours which were as valid in their time as the mores of the twenty first century are in ours. To use LP Hartley’s phrase from “The Go-Between”, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. i would therefore agree that history should not be taught as moral propaganda; rather it should encourage children to learn to be sceptical of presentations of the past as supporting a particular understanding of the present.

    On the powerful men point, these are often handy pegs on which to hang a wider chronological narrative of cause and effect and to provide some human colour in what might otherwise be a rather dry narrative. Further domestic political history and international relations do have a huge impact on the development of particular countries and societies – history cannot be just about social change drivens by economic, intellectual and technical developments.

    Clearly, though, children do not have the time to study the whole range of human history at school and therefore the periods/developments studied have to be selected to appeal to their imagination and curiousity as well as provide a wider background to why the UK and the world is the way it is now. The eighteenth century of Wilberforce and Pitt is perhaps a good period for doing the latter; Nazi Germany by contrast rather an aberration despite its popularity in much contemporary historical teaching. However it is easy to make a good case for studying almost any period for GCSE and/or A level – what matters as George explains is the approach.

  • I have to wholeheartedly agree with Toby. History teaching is currently very very poor and needs reforming along the lines he suggests.

    The biggest problem with the current curriculum is that no thought has been given to the skills History should pass on to kids. It’s currently a ‘fact’ dump (which is also how the red tops encourage people to think of History) It shouldn’t be just about answering questions like “which two sides fought in the battle of Britain?”. It should also be about the skills history teaches; empathy, weighing evidence, presentation, analysis, evaluation, creative thought, how to learn about different cultures and understanding…

    That’s what these reforms should be judged against.

  • Studied History years ago in the olden times of O Levels. Can’t say great figures ever really interested me that much. I liked roman history and wars. Terribly un-PC of me.. I think if you want more boys to do well in the subject give them what they want: A bit of blood and guts, with the important stuff sneeked in.
    I don’t think Gove is even really talking about history. I think he’s just saying things that sound good to posh folk. Actually, watching the Conservative Party Conference. I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re essentially a class war party and that’s why Gove wants history to focus on Great Men. Basically. he just wants history that makes various lords and dukes look noble.

  • The problem with teaching history as a series of ‘trends’, illuminated only by statistics, is not merely that it is misleading and easily swayed by the political leanings of the historian (since which trends are chosen as important, and which statistics are selected, is an extremely subjective process), but also that it is intensely boring, as lists of figures of imports and exports, coal and iron production, and censuses usually are. Using documented individual experience as an axis for teaching history is a proven and successful way of getting people (not just children) interested in what happened: the fact that history is not just the ebb and flow of economic statistics, but is something that actually happens to real live people.

    Of course I don’t expect a curriculum to be a list of individuals, and I hope that in actual history classes the role of individuals is covered. It is certainly ridiculous to imagine telling the history of the world from 1799-1815 or 1933-1945 without mentioning Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler. Certainly the history of the world (and our present situation) would have been radically different if other people had been in charge of France or Germany at those times. But a history that includes the role of individuals does not have to be all about ‘great men’. Historians could easily find the individual stories of slaves, peasants, servants, artisans and factory workers which would help make history just as interesting and engaging as the stories of emperors and prime ministers.

  • There is also some doubt as to whether such a genre as “Whig history” has ever existed outside a polemic literature which criticises the supposed agenda of historians who, in fact, had different and competing purposes. Within this polemic, the term “Whig” is protean, redefining itself with each generation of historians, and at length losing all connection with any of the several parties and factions that went under the name of Whig. Indeed, “Whig” has come to refer to a state of mind that was not only as characteristic of Tories as of Whigs, but which was repudiated by many on the Whig side. One suspects that the term “Whig” was chosen only because — having fallen out of common use by the mid-19th century — it conveyed a sense of aristocratic fustiness and crustiness which would not have been associated with, say, the term “Liberal”. Indeed, if the seminal text had been called “The Liberal Interpretation of History”, it would never have received the cachet it did.

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